Intentions and deeds: Parshat Shmini

Good intentions are always wonderful, but the deeds which emanate from these intentions are not always wonderful.

Men at Western Wall 395 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Men at Western Wall 395
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Kuzari is a profound book of philosophy written in a unique literary style by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, one of the Jewish nation’s great poets of the 11th century.
He begins with a story about the king of the Kuzari nation, a good and honest king, who strives with all his might to find truth and justice. He repeatedly has a surprising dream. In this dream he is told a disappointing statement, “Your intentions are desirable, but your deeds are not desirable.”
Following this dream, the king turns to the wise men of various religions and asks to clarify the meaning of the dream. At some point, he meets a wise Jewish man with whom he has a profound debate.
During this debate, described throughout the book, the Jew explains to the king the principles of Jewish faith.
This sentence that the Kuzari king heard in his dream – “Your intentions are desirable, but your deeds are not desirable” – sheds light on the tragedy that we read about in this week’s parsha, Parshat Shmini.
Am Yisrael, after their exodus from Egypt and after they experienced the incredible event of the Revelation at Sinai at which they received the Torah, began preparing for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.
This was the temporary Temple that was to accompany the nation during its 40 years in the desert and during the centuries following in the Land of Israel until the building of the Temple in Jerusalem was completed.
The entire nation participated in the process of building the Mishkan.
Some expressed their participation by donating expensive materials needed for the Mishkan and the ritual objects within it. There were those who actively participated in the construction itself or in weaving the priests’ clothing.
And here, almost a year later, the Mishkan stood in all its glory. For eight days, Moshe practiced the work in the Mishkan in order to teach it to his brother Aharon and his sons. The festive preparations were completed. The great day arrived – Rosh Hodesh Nisan – when the Mishkan would begin to function. The whole nation stood around the Mishkan, joyful and excited.
And then the tragedy occurred. Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, were swept up in the huge excitement and initiated an independent action that was not included in the instructions G-d had given Moshe.
They entered the Mishkan and sacrificed incense without instructions from above.
The result was horrifying, especially because it happened immediately, during the mass celebrations: “And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.” (Leviticus 10, 2) Such an awful punishment, of such special people, at such a festive hour! Our sages teach us that this tragedy comes to teach us a lesson for generations; a lesson that we must internalize and remember, and which is relevant at all times and for everyone.
Everyone knows that in the field of curing the body, there are clear and specific instructions on what to do or not do. A person who tries to be clever, outsmart his doctor and do as he pleases will pay a heavy price in his health. But in the field of spirituality, it sometimes seems that any path a person chooses is a good one. Since he means well, what difference could it possibly make if he does well in one way or the other? Here we return to the sentence with which we began and which the Kuzari king heard in his dream, “Your intentions are desirable, but your deeds are not desirable.”
Good intentions are always wonderful, but the deeds which emanate from these intentions are not always wonderful.
In the Book of the Zohar, we find a unique definition for the 613 commandments that appear in the Torah. The Zohar calls them “613 pieces of advice.” Wonderful pieces of advice that G-d bestowed upon us in His goodness, so we would know how to make our good intentions efficient and know how to direct them so they would be expressed in correct deeds that would also be desirable.
Aharon’s sons meant well, but they did not act according to the advice of the Creator.
He knows best what our correct path should be and therefore, how to “translate” our good intentions into good deeds.
With their deaths, they taught us a basic principle. Even when we are flooded with good intentions, we must think carefully and check how to express those intentions with good deeds that will be good for us and for society around us.The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.